The two plays by William Shakespeare, Hamlet and Othello, reflect the Renaissance philosophy, with its most important schools- Platonism, Aristotelianism and Humanism, especially in their treatment of human nature and human condition. The works of the two philosophers – Plato and Aristotle, which formed the basis of the two movements that took the names of their initiators, were reinterpreted by many scholars of the Medieval and Renaissance period, and of the later periods.
Platonism and Aristotelianism were opposed philosophies in their first articulation. The Platonists believed that there is a world of abstractions, the pure world of ideas. The characteristics of the material objects, formed an abstract world, which was moreover, the true word. For example, the Platonist school of thought implied that the material world was only a reflection of the perfect world of ideas, that is, a beautiful object is only the reflection of the idea of beauty.
Aristotle revised these ideas that Plato had first initiated, and proposed an opposed view, which was based on an empirical way of knowing the world, and which constituted the first step towards natural science.
The two doctrines referred obviously to both ontological and epistemological facts about the world.
On the other hand, the Renaissance humanism which was actually the most characteristic philosophy for this period, emphasized the nobility of human nature, and the powers of human intellect and spirit, while joining the two main philosophies – Platonism and Aristotelianism.
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As Brian Copenhaver and Charles Schmitt observed in their Renaissance Philosophy, both Platonism and Aristotelianism presented many problems for the humanists and for the theologians as well, like, for instance the transmigration of souls and other beliefs which seemed incompatible with Christianity:
“Why should an upwardly mobile scholar or bureaucrat sympathize with Plato’s elitism? Were humanists not troubled by his scorn for poets and rhetoricians? Plato’s advocacy of communism and advertisement of homosexuality invited political and social complaint. Even his renowned piety seemed out of tune with a philosophy that made matter eternal, the human soul preexistent and migratory, and the gods and demons many, powerful, and worthy of worship. As the Renaissance came to know Plato better, discussion of his thought could not have been other than complex and divided, and the controversy had been prepared by an anti-Platonic tradition long sustained by pagans and Christians alike. As early modern thinkers developed new modes of reading unknown to antiquity and the Middle Ages, Plato’s compatibility with Christianity remained the leading question. “(Copenhaver, 129)
However, many of the ideas of the two philosophies were either kept or reinterpreted as the main philosophical views at the time of Renaissance, and this is very well reflected in the plays of William Shakespeare.
In Hamlet, which is one of Shakespeare’s plays that most approaches a metaphysical view of human nature seems to waver in its essential purport upon the edge separating Platonism from Aristotelianism. One of the greatest dilemmas in Hamlet is that of individual action.
Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark is called upon to revenge the murder of his father. As critics have observed repeatedly, on of the most essential and telling things in the play is Hamlet hesitation when he has to take definite action against the murderer. One of the essential differences between the humanists who advocated Plato’s theory and the ones who adopted Aristotelianism, was that between the contemplative life that was characteristic of the Platonic movement and that of active life as presented by Aristotle. Various philosophers of the Renaissance took up one or the other of the two doctrines, and encouraged either contemplation or action:
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“Ficino’s work (…) also glorified the contemplative life and professed an ascetic contempt for the material world not in keeping with the pragmatic interests of the civic humanists. But to see the Aristotelian Argyropoulos as champion of the active life and the Platonist Ficino as prophet of contemplative quietism is too simple. For one thing, Argyropoulos seems to have intended no activist propaganda in his teaching, and, even more important, Ficino’s theory of the contemplative life kept his philosophy attractive to the politically and economically vigorous Florentines who supported him.
Always urging the ascent of the soul, Ficino presented the contemplative life as the final step in a hierarchy of human action that led people to surpass the active life without utterly denying it; lived well, the active life becomes a step on the way to escaping matter and uniting with God. It was the genius of Neoplatonism to open channels between the divine and the mundane that transcended the world while preserving it as a platform for ascent to the godhead.” (Copenhaver, 144)
Hamlet seems to be a contemplative character altogether, for whom the ideal world of abstract moral values constitutes the guiding principle. When he is faced with the baseness of the many crimes that occur in his own family, he postpones taking action and revenging his father. Moreover, the revenge takes place almost accidentally at the end of the play.
His hesitation in front of these “material” problems is relevant for his Neo- Platonic frame of thought:
“How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge. What is a man
If his chief good and market if his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
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That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d. […]” (Ham. IV. 4. 32-39)
It becomes obvious from Hamlet’s speech that his reflections regarding human condition and human nature are based on main principles of both Humanism and Platonic thinking: man is seen alternately by Hamlet as a superior being endowed with “godlike reason” and a beast, whose main concerns are its primary needs. That is, Hamlet’s own ideas about the world and about man, which are essentially idealistic and Platonist, meet with an obvious obstacle in the material world, where he sees the baseness of character of both his uncle and his mother. An even more poignant example of how he is repelled by the idea of a purely material world in which the spiritual realities he believes in are hardly perceptible is his unjust condemnation of Ophelia, whom he blames without proof for the frailty he sees in his own mother.
Hamlet ponders himself on his own hesitation in when he is supposed to take action, and realizes that his wavering comes from what he calls “thinking too precisely on the event” ( Ham. IV. 4. 41), that is to say, his own contemplative nature and the need to understand first and meditate on the event, as well as to judge it, prevent him from taking action. At the end of the monologue however, he determines that his “thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”( Ham. IV. 4. 66), that is, he chooses action over contemplation, as he feels he is compelled by the events to mend things and do justice to his father’s death.
Thus, it can be said that Hamlet has to take action and reestablish the ethical order in the world, which had been so terribly disturbed by the crimes which took place in his family. This structuring of the events reflects the Renaissance philosophical context, which blended Platonism with Aristotelianism and Humanism.
First of all, according to the Platonists man should tend to contemplation of the ideal world, and live in the purer world of the spirit, not be limited to the material one. The protagonists in Hamlet, that is the king and the queen, have sinned against these precepts by giving in to desire of power and to lust. The fact that Hamlet feels that he needs to take action is in tuning with the humanist idea that man can reestablish the divine order and that, in order to do that, he must play the part that is required of him in the material world.
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Thus, the two worlds- the material and transcendental are not completely separate, and the Renaissance man believed that the spiritual perfection can be reached through action as well, insofar as this would imply reestablishing the divine order.
In Othello, similar ideas appear about individual action. Othello too is called upon to take action against what he believes was the betrayal of his wife Desdemona. However, the first significant difference between Hamlet and Othello is that the latter is a moor, that is a colored man, of a different race and religion.
The Renaissance views on the subject of race are very significant in the context of the play, and are reflected especially in Othello’s character, which appears to be the very opposite of that of Hamlet.
If Hamlet is of a contemplative nature, given to musings about the nature of man and his place in the world, Othello is a rough, impulsive man who acts without hesitation, but also, acts when he shouldn’t.
He is easily deceived by Iago and therefore he believes him when he tries to inflict him with false ideas about Desdemona’s love. Thus, Othello, who like Hamlet, can be said to perform an act of revenge, actually does something which is useless and, moreover, unjust. Othello’s character is also evident at the end of the play, after he kills Desdemona and confesses the manner in which he loved her: “one that loved not wisely, but too well” (V.2.340).
Thus, his own statement reveals the nature of his impulsive and tempestuous character and emotions: he was capable of true and strong love, although he did not love “wisely”.
This proves essentially that Hamlet and Othello are two opposite characters, both acting in the name of revenge, although for different reasons, Hamlet in his attempt at reestablishing the moral order and Othello in the name of love. However, if Hamlet hesitates to take action for most of the play, and moreover, chooses the device of the staged play to commence his revenge, that is, another intellectual, contemplative device, Othello takes action without judging the events for himself, but being merely influenced by what Iago was telling him. Othello is a military character in a way, who is prone to take action and fight:
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“Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! 0, farewell![…]
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone. ( Othello, 3.3.347-57)
It is interesting to notice that both Othello and Hamlet may be paralleled to Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Hamlet lives interiorly in a Platonic world, which could be likened to Don Quixote’s confusion of the books of romance with actual reality. Don Quixote lives in the world of the stories he has read, and moreover, those stories are chivalric romances, that is stories of quest and exemplary deeds which aim at mending the world and which are always fraught with symbolic meaning. But, he needs to accomplish the deeds that fill his fantasy, and although it can’t be said that he does so, he does act. In Don Quixote thus, action is itself unreal, since his chivalric deeds are not what he believes they are:
“Were those mud walls in thy fantasy, Sancho,’ quoth Don Quixote, ‘where or thorough which thou sawest that never-enough-praised gentleness and beauty? They were not so, but galleries, walks, or goodly stone pavements—or how call ye ‘em?—of rich and royal palaces.” (Cervantes II, 489)
The chivalric romances which are Don Quixote’s faith are also that of Othello in a way, because of the latter’s military character, and his search for adventures. Othello’s love for Desdemona also has something of the chivalric about it. Thus, all the three characters, Hamlet, Othello and Don Quixote evince the same Platonist and Aristotelian dilemmas of contemplation and the spiritual versus action and the material.